How to Developmentally Edit Your Work

What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing takes into account the big picture and overall structure, story, and content of your book, including characters, dialogue, subplots, and the like. At this level, you won’t worry or focus too much on the grammar or copy editing side of things. This is also the stage where a lot of writers get alpha readers involved to help them figure out what parts of their book need the most work.

When you return to your book for the first time and start reading through, making notes of what doesn’t feel right or even cutting out whole sections, you are performing a developmental edit.

This is the first stage of edits that a manuscript goes through because it addresses the elements of craft and story working together to pull off your novel. Personally, I love this stage of editing. In developmental editing, you can take a hard look at your story and pinpoint what isn’t helping your vision for the book.

Maybe there are too many characters or you haven’t figured out who your POV or main character is yet. Developmental editing helps figure all that out through experimenting, outlining, and plotting your story to see how it moves from beginning to end.

It’s best to start here because you don’t want to spend time copy editing pages that you end up changing entirely when you realize there is a plot hole or other error.

All books go through a round of developmental editing. Because of the sheer nature of developmental editing, this is where most of the major issues of the book will be spotted and fixed. That means this edit can lead to the book becoming something new or slightly different. Names and characters can be changed, the middle can get rewritten, and so much more can happen during this stage.

How to Perform a Developmental Edit

Don’t focus on making edits on your first developmental edit read-through — just read and make notes or comments on the draft about things that stick out to you whether negative or positive. It’s best to start this way so that you’re not making unnecessary changes before you’ve gotten into the full book.

At this stage, I usually chart out the story. Even if I’ve already made an outline, I’ll make another one based on what actually happens in the story as I’m reading. This helps see whether or not you’ve stuck to your original idea or veered off. It also helps target any scenes or characters that are only serving one purpose or function.

In my masterclasses and articles, I always stress that every element in your story should do more than one thing. While reading through the first time, make note of what each scene and character adds to the story.

If you find yourself with a section, phrase, line of dialogue, character, or any sort of story element only there to serve one purpose (like to tell information or push the character to do something), then it needs to be cut or reworked so that it isn’t just a storytelling function but an element of the overall story that develops it instead of stilts it.

While reading, think about how the characters are interacting, how they come across to the reader, and if their motivations are clear. Do all the scenes build off of and develop each other to the conclusion? Are the chapters structured in a way that enhances the reader’s experience? Is the POV character the right one?

Questions like that are what I ask of my draft. Some writers suggest doing developmental editing on a different device than the one you wrote on. So if you wrote in a notebook, type it up, and read it on the screen. If you wrote it on a computer, print it out or send it to your phone or tablet to read. Changing the way the text looks will help add more distance and space between you and your draft.

When you find places that don’t add up or work out, mark them and move on. With the notes you have, determine whether or not you need to do a rewrite or develop things more. A lot of times, this is the stage where writers spend time deepening and developing their characters along with other storytelling elements.

Address your comments and make changes upon your second developmental read. The time between the two developmental readings can vary. Sometimes the things that I notice during the first read are quick fixes. Other times, I realize that there are major plot holes and discrepancies that don’t add up to a good story. When this happens, allow your analytical side and your creative side to work together for solutions.

If you’re a visual person, it may help to write or draw out each plot or story issue so that you can see it physically represented before you in different ways. I have a large dry erase board where I’ll list out my story’s issues that I’ve found in the developmental stage. Sometimes by doing this, I can see where certain issues could resolve each other.

For example, when I have a character that I love and think is integral to the story, but doesn’t get a lot of page time, I realize I can use them to help out certain sections where I need an extra or different character to drive conflict or storylines.

Questions to Ask During a Developmental Edit

When doing developmental edits it is nice to have a list of questions to help you focus. I’ve included 20 questions that you can use to make your developmental edits run smoother.

  1. What is the plot of my story?
  2. Are all of my characters serving the overall progression of the plot?
  3. Does the story begin and end in logical places and ways?
  4. Are there too many or too few characters in the story?
  5. Which characters change throughout the story and how?
  6. Does my main character change? If not, why?
  7. What is the overall emotional journey I want the reader to have while reading? Is each scene serving that function?
  8. Are there any sections that I can take out without hurting or taking away from the story?
  9. Do the story and scenes take place in settings that enrich and develop the story?
  10. Are there moments throughout where I fall into info-dumping and stop the momentum of the story?
  11. Does the structure of the book make sense?
  12. Is the presentation logical?
  13. Is there a wider story arc that engages the reader and pulls them through the narrative?
  14. Has a coherent viewpoint been applied? Is it consistent? Does it make sense for the story?
  15. Does the chapter structure make sense?
  16. Have narrative techniques been correctly applied?
  17. Does each scene contain sufficient description?
  18. What genre conventions am I sticking to and which ones am I toying with?
  19. Is the tense consistent?
  20. Is the characterization believable and consistent?

Pitfalls of a Developmental Edit

While developmental editing can help you fix the issues of your plot, character, and book, there are ways that you can ruin or mess your book up without realizing it during this stage. A lot of these come from the fact that when most writers dive into their edits they forget to save earlier versions of their draft and they don’t keep their story’s intentions or main focus at hand. This leads to the piece changing so much that the writer themselves can’t even recognize it.

To avoid this type of work, save save save. Always save and backup your work. I usually make several different draft copies so that I don’t lose work. Scrivener has become a real-life saver when it comes to this. The program allows you to take ‘snap shots’ of your story at different stages.

If you do not use Scrivener or any other writing software besides the basics (Word, Notes/Pages, Google Docs), then come up with another system that allows you to save sections of your novel before making major changes. This will help you avoid losing parts of your story or chopping off sections that you were just angry at during your edit.

The key component to remember when doing a developmental edit is to know what your story is about. Not having a clue what your writing will keep you in the weeds of your story instead of making progress. For students of my ultimate novel-writing course, we delve deep into what each of their novels’ intentions and focuses are to help them remain on target throughout their edits.

Non-students can do the same thing. Find your book’s driving force, write it down or even keep it up where you write and edit, and return to it whenever your feeling lost or during moments where you need to make big decisions about what’s going to make or break your story.

It’s your book, know it, own it, and write it like a pro.

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